First Person: Tour Virginia Horse Country
Historic Garden Week's stunning homes and gardens.
It’s all about the driveway in Virginia horse country.
But no ordinary drive, this. Winding, labyrinthine, five minute gambols down allées of magnolias and stately oaks bowing down to welcome you define the epic drives in this sliver of Virginia. And at the end of that drive, some handsome, impeccably well-kept home filled with antiques and interesting people and their lovely, well-tended gardens.
The Virginia horse country towns of Middleburg, Upperville, Millwood, Culpeper and Winchester are about an hour's drive from Washington, D.C. though they feel like a world apart. It’s no wonder this bucolic slice of Virginia is a favorite refuge for movie stars, horse people, old money, gentleman farmers and Beltline retirees.
Defined by charming downtowns with the ambiance of English country villages, in many of these towns the local economy centers on all things equestrian. The Loudoun County ville of Middleburg, est. 1787, boasts more representations of foxes—fox banners, fox door knockers, fox taxidermy than a Wes Anderson film, in deference to the local pursuit of fox hunting. It’s not unusual to see a man on a Monday morning outfitted in a tall velvet hat, riding breeches and jacket nonchalantly picking up a bagel at the same deli where local resident Robert Duvall goes for his order of choice, the Santa Fe sandwich. Linda Tripp, of Monica Lewinsky fame, and her husband, who is known to wander Middleburg’s streets in lederhosen, own a Christmas shop, the Christmas Sleigh, on the town’s main drag, Washington Street. Even the people who aren’t truly famous are skinny and well-turned out enough to fool you.
I was lucky enough to tour Virginia horse country and surrounding burgs, including adorable Fredericksburg, Virginia (where I was escorted through lovely homes by a charming garden club chair and Ole Miss alum in Colonial garb) for this year’s Historic Garden Week. One of the highlights of the Fredericksburg arm of the tour, beyond the exceptional hospitality of the hosts, was the circa 1786-1792 home Federal Hill, which has been lovingly, meticulously restored by its present owners down to the historically-accurate and drool-worthy paint colors in the home's dining room and office. This exceptional home also boasts a number of outbuildings repurposed as pool houses and garden sheds including a restored smokehouse, summerhouse and propagation shed.
The annual 8-day Historic Garden Week is the nation’s only statewide garden tour and bills itself as "America's largest open house." It’s also a chance to ogle incredible houses and gardens set back on secret country roads that make you feel like a sheepish interloper. On my itinerary, the watch-your-back-Martha, gorgeous 1816 Federal-style Millwood garden and home, Clay Hill, of jewelry designer and former Town and Country contributing editor Elizabeth Locke, whose design sensibility and green thumb will inspire me for years to come. You know you’re in a special place when your hostess pours you a glass of wine and offers to give you a tour of her orangery, an orangery not only sheltering overwintering citrus, but boasting an indoor pool bordered by elegant settees placed between Italian-style colonnades.
In this rarefied slice of Virginia, no one bats an eye at astounding displays of wealth. Front lawns boast sculpture by Jaume Plensa and Henry Moore and other multimillion-dollar sculptures splayed out on the land like other people’s play sets. There are stacked stone and wood shuttered horse stables that look like a Highlands, North Carolina one-percenters vacation home and illustrate the indigenous near-reverence for Equus ferus caballus.
You learn a lot about a town from its garden ladies. All of the garden club members who work to pull off a successful Historic Garden Week ornament the tour homes with homemade arrangements, mostly sourced from their own and friends’ gardens. Some of the nicest were the simplest: dogwood tree branches or filigrees of euphorbia and scads of the favorite seasonal bloom, the tulip.
But don’t take my word for it. Select your favorite Virginia setting and plunge into next year’s Historic Garden Tour, from April 22-29, 2017.
See how the other half lives and gardens in homes ranging from the charming to the jaw-dropping. This annual statewide open house spans the entire state of Virginia, offering everything from coastal to city gardens. Fredericksburg and the Middleburg area are especially noteworthy locations to add to your must-see list.
Each May this steeplechase—one of the nation’s largest—offers a see-and-be-seen opportunity for the local landed gentry, visiting D.C. politicians, celebrities and equestrian fans of every stripe. If you love either horses and/or people-watching, this is the place to be. On October 22, the annual International Gold Cup is held in the same location at Great Meadow in the Plains.
Oatlands Historic House and Gardens
At this National Historic Site and 1803 Greek Revival plantation Oatlands I was treated to an outdoor lunch in the garden’s tea house featuring a cold asparagus soup, nicoise salad and local Virginia wine created by Oatlands’ dynamic executive director Bonnie LePard. If you are ever in the vicinity, you must do everything within your power to wrangle a garden tour with the resident head gardener Mark Schroeter, who is a font of historical and plant wisdom and who has an irreverent sense of humor and can tell you some toe-curling ghost stories. He’s played a part in restoring the 260 acres of farmland and garden to their original splendor, honoring the horticultural traditions of the past, including maintaining what is considered the South’s oldest standing greenhouse. The Oatlands grounds are spectacular and include a boxwood parterre, reflecting pool, abundance of native plants and charming sculptural vignettes spread throughout the garden, from a Virgin Mary to a nymph in the all-together who is the delight of giggling visiting schoolchildren. The staff have also made a concerted effort to acknowledge slavery as part of the site’s complicated history, a welcome refusal to omit this aspect of the South’s heritage.
Millwood resident Elizabeth Locke’s neo-classical, 19k gold jewelry is sold at such rarefied venues as Neiman Marcus and a Madison Avenue flagship store, but the designer also has a local outpost for shoppers who want to see her lovely, European-inspired designs up close. Visit The Other Elizabeth, her namesake shop on Main Street in Boyce, Virginia to see her jewelry up close.
This general store-slash gift shop is a great stop for a horsey souvenir, whether you’re looking for a preppy belt, coasters and plates festooned with foxes and horses or pretty napkins and high-end toiletries. Stationary, hostess gifts, candles and picnic supplies make this a diverse enough collection to ensure you’ll find something you’ll love.
The ultimate in horsey-luxe, this grand, sprawling resort on 340 acres (no one in this nook of horse country messes around with anything less than 100 acres) is walking distance to the adorable town of Middleburg (or hotel drivers will chauffeur you there). Service is top-notch and considerate (especially nice for women traveling alone) and rooms boast gas fireplaces, marble showers and sumptuous beds outfitted with a king’s ransom in pillows. In public areas, there is a cozy library stocked with reading material, a convivial bar buzzing with activity on a Saturday night and lovely grounds that encourage walking. The Salamander is the best of both worlds: luxurious—with all the expected high-end trappings, from a well-appointed spa to an equestrian center—but within a relaxing, pastoral setting. Created by BET co-founder Sheila Johnson, this amenity-rich resort in its scope and style bears some resemblance to Asheville’s comparably sprawling, activity-rich The Inn on Biltmore Estate, but with a horse country ambiance all its own.
Virginia Tourist Association
Virginia Tourist Association
The oldest inn in America, the Red Fox has played host to presidents (as in George Washington), Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie O., Michael Jackson and Justin Bieber. During the Civil War Confederate soldiers commandeered the inn as a hospital and headquarters. Super cozy, the rooms have comfy canopied four poster beds and lovely, squeaky wood floors (sneeze in your room, and they may hear you next door, though it all adds to the intimate, old-school appeal) but modern amenities like Wi-Fi and flat screens. Don’t expect perfection (for instance, there are no thermostats in the room, so you call down to the front desk for a temperature adjustment); this inn is housed in a 1728 fieldstone building after all. But if it’s character and history you’re after in this history-rich slice of America, you could do no better than the Red Fox. The inn also boasts a wonderful on-site Red Fox Tavern with locavore specialties like peanut soup and a surprisingly good specialty cocktail menu (we loved the Kentucky Buck, a crisp bourbon-based cocktail with muddled mint and lime and spicy ginger beer) and a low wood-beam ceiling and fireplaces that make you feel lost in time. The inn is mere steps from some of Middleburg’s many quaint-to-fancy shops offering everything from antiques to haute botanicals and European beauty products.